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Attention Wasps: Uncle Sam Wants You

By Jan Suszkiw
July 19, 1999

Tiny parasitic wasps that attack crop-hungry caterpillars may be recruited for a new assignment.

U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Joe Lewis is studying the wasps’ potential to sniff out chemical odors from unexploded ordnances such as bombs, mines, or toxins in nerve gases.

The four-year project is funded by Controlled Biological Systems (CBS), a program administered by the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Lewis’ research group is one of several helping DARPA explore new ways of monitoring the environment around military, civilian, or agricultural areas for chemical or biological threats, particularly from terrorist activity.

One CBS interest is developing new detection technologies patterned after the olfactory and neural mechanisms by which insects smell odors with their antennae.

CBS coordinator Alan Rudolph first contacted Lewis a year ago, after learning of Lewis’ work with Microplitis, Cotesia, and Cardiochiles wasps at the Insect Biology and Population Management Research Lab, operated in Tifton, Georgia, by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. ARS is USDA’s chief scientific agency.

The work of Lewis, Iowa State University collaborator Tim Baker, and ARS chemist Jim Tumlinson, is three-pronged. One is tuning the wasps’ sense of smell to the odor of cyclohexanol, trinitrotuluene (TNT) and other explosives ingredients; the second is tying specific wasp behaviors to a specific odor’s presence; and the third is determining how best to employ the wasps.

One possibility: placing them in a mobile probe where air samples can be smelled. Another is rigging detached wasp antennae to a remotely-controlled sensor that displays the electrical readings.

What makes this possible? Scientists can teach the wasps to find odors otherwise ignored in nature. In flight tunnel experiments, scientists showed that the wasps would fly towards tubes emitting cyclohexanol, TNT, vanilla and methyl jasmonate at rates of 0.05 to 30 nanograms per minute one meter downwind.

In nature, this dog-like sense of smell helps wasps find plants where caterpillars can serve as hosts for offspring.

Scientific contact: Joe Lewis, ARS Insect Biology and Population Management Research Lab, Tifton, Ga. phone (912) 387-2369, fax (912) 382-9467,